Walking The Night
I have walked at night since I was about eighteen. I have always been quite a nocturnal creature, and there is something about walking at night that I find both magical and soothing. I walk at night both in cities and in the countryside and I am invariably often the only one out walking.
‘Aren’t you afraid?’ A friend once asked, ‘walking at night?’
‘What would I be afraid of? Who would be mad enough to be out walking at 1am?’ I ask… ‘Well.. oh yes… apart from me that is…’
Tonight, I am making my way up a chalk farm track onto the South Downs. It is pitch dark, my eyes have not yet adjusted to the night and there is no moon. Between the two tall hedgerows full of rustling and shadows, the tumbling of stones dislodged by my own footsteps echo and fall as if someone is following just behind me, and the truth is, it is a little unnerving. I press on ignoring that ancient distrust of woods at night and the thoughts of what might be lurking amongst the shadows. It is 11:30pm.
Every year for almost 20 years I have set out to walk from one year to the next on the eve of my birthday. I set off before midnight, walk through the witching hour and into the first hours of the morning of my new year. It has become one of the ways I reflect upon the year just gone, say farewell to it, and welcome in the start of the new one.
Sometimes I walk for an hour or two before midnight. Sometimes I’ve spent the whole night walking. Sometimes I don’t do much walking and end up at a beach, swimming out the old year and swimming in the new with a watery rebirth.
Tonight, alone in the dark I have a half hour walk to the top of the Downs. Up the track, the familiar made unfamiliar by the night, I feel the path disappear under my step as hidden hollows and depths – not yet discernible to my eyes - give way under my feet.
The zip on my coat, with a tiny metallic chinking, sounds like it is made by someone else behind me. The trees on either side loom almost menacingly overhead, blocking out the night sky and what little light there might be. This part of the journey is about knowing there will be lighter times ahead - because it would be easy to turn back.
I climb over a stile and set out in a direction I hope won’t send me plunging over the edge and down a steep hillside that is somewhere to my right. The fields are black against a black sky. It will take the half hour for my vision to really adjust and be able to see clearly tussocks of grass and dips on the hills.
A pheasant startled in the wood calls and flaps its wings. An owl hoots. Shapes loom out of the darkness. A dew pond like a round eye cut into the landscape appears, as if the whole hill is a dragon and its eye is watching me. Light, from where? Glints dimly on the small pool of water at the centre and gives the impression of its eye rolling to watch me as I pass.
Every sense pricks with awareness and vision has less part to play for a while.
Though the swift walk is strenuous up the hill, my heart is beating fast against my ribs, and perhaps some of its speed is remnants of primeval fear of what might be hiding in the dark woods. Every time it is a bit like this. But who else is out here? Usually not a soul. Only once have I met a walker same as me on some moonlit night, we nodded to each other. ‘Good evening,’ we said, as if we always meet people at 1 am in the morning….and carried on walking our own paths.
But there is no one out here tonight. Carrying on will brings its rewards. I turn, halfway up the hill, the view opening out.
Below me, in a semicircle of shadows and lights caught in pockets of soft mist amongst hills, valleys and trees, Sussex is laid out for miles in all directions. I stop to take in the view. This mystical setting, the land dark against a sky lit by billions and billions of stars. Over the hill a glow from lights in the town makes a faintly lit curve on the horizon line. And away across the landscape patches of light and life cluster together in hamlets and villages between the darkness of empty fields and woods.
I am the only soul out on the hill in the darkness under the universe. It feels as if the whole world is mine for a moment in time.
Suddenly from the top of the hill in the blackness the drumming of many running feet… I jump startled. A ghostly hunt from ages past….? On that pale horizon line, a flock of maybe fifty sheep stop stock still silhouetted, their heads and ears all turned my way, I have startled them as much as they have startled me.
I lie in the grass, which smells soft of the earth and dampness and sheep. I’m glad to be wrapped in a voluminous waterproof black dry which I so love for these occasions. And my heart beats, not just against my ribs, but against the Chalk Downs, against the earth…until it feels as if maybe it isn’t my heartbeat anymore, but the earth’s heart beating against my ribs. And my eyes fill with stars. All there is is the stillness of space, the silence of the hills at night, my own breath. After a while I can’t tell where I end, and earth begins. Am I breathing in stars or breathing them out.
And the bowl of night curves round to meet the edges of my vision. I am going to fall off the earth and leave, float away into the stars.
It is midnight, one day ended, a new about to begin. And for me, one year ended and a new one beginning with as many choices ahead as there are stars….
I lie very very still …. but spinning very very fast, star shaped against the black hill. It is my spell for the year ahead. Dreaming into being and the universe answers with shooting stars leaving trails of brilliance against the night sky. We are all shooting stars, our time in life just a brief burst of light in the dark.
I stay falling into the stars, my breathe breathing them out into space…. Until finally I become too cold to stay longer.
The walk back is different, I can see as if it was as bright as day, though only the stars light the way. I feel one with the trees and the path is no longer through darkness, but clear chalk lit. The dragon rolls its eye with a glint on the way back and settles its scaly wings under the grass again. The final seventh shooting star burns a trail across the atmosphere. And it is time to go home.
My studio festooned with fairy lights waits dimly for me to welcome in my birthday with a square of chocolate and a hot cup of tea.
And I can’t wait for the year ahead that is already beginning…….and all its endless starry possibilities.